Thursday, September 18, 2008

Improving an intranet staff directory

My team has been throwing around approaches for improving our internal agency staff directory on the intranet to make it more of a knowledge resource for staff.

As this is the most used tool in our intranet (people need to contact other people), improving the service contributes measurably to our staff's capacity to collaborate and discover the information necessary in their roles.

The more we can streamline people discovery, the more time we can save staff.

Thus far discussions have focused on our own experiences across a number of online staff directories over the years.

For my contribution to the discussion, from my experience over a twenty year span, the first staff directories were based on the paper phone directories used before intranets were common - alphabetical lists of names, titles, teams and phone numbers, divided by region or area.

These lists - and intranet directories - were useful in finding a known person, were you could identify their name and area.

However they had more difficulty in locating unknown people - subject matter experts - as area and team names did not always reflect their activities and without knowing who to contact it was hard to find an appropriate name.

Also traditional staff directories are only name, number and rank - they do not provide details on skills, relationships or communities, which help link people collaborate more effectively.

Therefore I've described three cases I want our future staff directory to cover.

1) Locating details for known people
  • Finding contact details and physical locations (the basics of a directory)
  • Discovering the skills, subject matter expertise, internal networks and communities of these people (a profile-based approach to help staff broaden their engagement with others)
  • Placing these people in the organisation structure (via a dynamic organisational chart - therefore enabling staff to identify substitutes and managers when people are absent)
2) Locating experts
  • Ability to search on skills, topics or networks to find people with the expert knowledge required (the experts might be unknown to the searcher, or known people for whom the searcher was unaware they had this expertise)
3) Engaging networks of knowledge
  • Ability to search for networks of people sharing specific skills or subject matter expertise, in order to link in with them to form formal or informal Communities of Practice

As part of these cases, we're considering Facebook and LinkedIn style features, such as,
  • staff profiles, to provide staff with the opportunity to humanise their listing and be more visible as an expert in their field
  • optional staff photos (so you can identify with a person when calling or emailing, or recognise them when first meeting)
  • linking of skills, topics and interests, so that clicking on a word provides details on other staff who have indicated similar expertise or knowledge
  • Listing affiliations, to internal project teams and other formal and informal networks or communities within the organisation, to assist the formation of Communities of Practice and to build staff engagement with the agency.

Involvement in all of these areas would be optional, allowing staff to better self-manage their privacy. However, as in any situation involving information sharing, you get greater value when you share than when you silo knowledge.

Over time this approach lends itself to integration with collaboration tools, forums, wikis, groups and blogs, as well as team-based tools such as group calendars and mailing lists.

We've been looking online for reference material on the topic of staff directories, drawing on the experiences of a number of private sector organisations who have implemented similar types of directories.

A couple of the resources we've found useful include,

I'm very interested in the experiences of other government and private sector organisations in this space - so drop me a comment if you have suggestions to add.


  1. Hey Craig,

    At Lake Macquarie Council we're currently developing our Intranet. We've taken the approach that our "Staff Finder" is the core of our Intranet solution.

    Like yourself, we wanted to project not just the contact details for an employee but also their skills and duties.

    We've added a tagging system so people can flag themselves with their interests and abilities. This will assist our Customer Service Centre and the rest of staff to identify responsible officers.

    For example - to locate Council's Arborist, the user could search on "trees, arborist". We could even supply incorrect terms (such as "lopper") or misspelt items ( eg. "arberist") to aid in staff discovery.

    We're also using it to tag "firewardens", "jp", "firstaid" and the like.

    Staff can also suggest tags for their colleagues - with strict anti-abuse guidelines and a transparent workflow ;)

    The Staff Finder allows employees to upload their own photos (FaceBook style). Obviously this is entirely option, but greatly encouraged.

    We plan to use Staff Finder to help connect project teams, organise social gatherings, staff profiles. We also plan to implement a geotagging system combined with a custom tiles GoogleMaps mashup to help staff locate each other's desks.

    As the bulk of Staff Finder's data is sourced from Active Directory accounts, maintenance is managed by existing IT procedures.

  2. The move from names and phone numbers to expertise and interests is obviously an important one. But it's also very, very hard.

    Photos, locations, and project teams: easy.

    Expertise, relationships between staff, tagging of skills: very hard.

    We can find few (if any) organisations outside professional services firms that have had success with traditional expertise directories. I think the idea of an "internal Facebook" will similarly struggle.

    The core challenge is that the motivations that make people fill in their Facebook profiles don't naturally exist within the firewall. I do think that there will be different motivations that can be exploited, but we haven't done enough to find and understand these. (This should be the first focus of any of these types of projects.)

    All that being said, maybe you can pull it off! If so, definitely put your solution in for next year's Intranet Innovation Awards, and you might get a lovely glass trophy. :-)

    (Coincidentally, this is something that I blogged on a few days ago.)

  3. Hi roguemm,

    Your approach sounds great - let me know how it goes. You might want to let James know as well for those Intranet Innovation Awards.


    I hear what you are saying. It's one of the areas I struggle with - motivating staff to share information that helps the organisation, and themselves.

    It has to be a bottom-up approach, as each staff member has to be individually motivated to engage. I think that tapping into existing networks and providing them with meaningful value from using the directory in this manner (helping them connect more easily) is a place to start.

  4. If you're looking to design an internal Facebook of sorts, look to the U.S. intelligence community and their A-Space program.

    I recently wrote about Uncle Sam rocking social media.